Dating Advice, Belief, and Practice: A Comparison of Amish and Mainstream Culture

by: Herman Eckerle

In search of a marriage partner, both Amish and Americans date. Among youths of both cultures, it is common to have questions about the dating process, and in particular, questions regarding the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable dating behavior. However, this is where most of the similarities end. The advice that Amish youth receive is drastically different than that received by their American counterparts. The differences in advice can be explained by considering the differences between Amish motifs and the strict interpretation of the Bible by which they guide their lives, and mainstream American culture, which lacks a single source of guidance and expresses a vast range of beliefs.

To begin, it should be considered that sexual desires are common across cultures. These desires often peak during the dating process, which provides a situation where fulfillment is easily possible. When this situation is approached, people are often asked for advice as to whether, and to what extent, physical stimulation and gratification is appropriate. However, whereas the common question in American society is "Should we have sex?" a more typical question among Amish would be "What is wrong with kissing, hugging, holding hands, and sitting close to each other?" (Young Companion 6)

Among couples in mainstream culture, a degree of physical contact is not only accepted, but also expected. It raises more concern if a dating couple does not hold hands, sit close, and hug than if they do. Advice is generally not sought until the issues of "heavy kissing," "heavy petting," and sex arise in the relationship. Then, when advice is requested, answers are based on a variety of different sources and lack uniformity. For example, a church representative may express a belief, based on the Bible, that sex is sinful and wrong for an unmarried couple. Some may offer different support for abstinence, saying it will reduce "heartache" should the couple separate. Others may state a more common answer, based on health concerns, that fornication is acceptable as long as the couple has "safe sex." Still others express the opinion, based on a belief of maximizing self-pleasure, that "if it feels good, do it." As a result of such contradictory responses, the advice seeker has received almost no help in terms of a common societal belief, but may feel justified with any decision made.

When studying Amish dating practices and advice, it must be considered that the Amish believe human nature is inherently flawed. Due to this corrupt nature, many of people's natural desires and actions, including "lusts of the flesh," are believed to be evil. By remaining separate from the mainstream culture and following the Bible, the Amish believe that they can "approximate the Kingdom of God here on earth" (Central Motifs in the World View of the Old Order Amish). When Amish youth are tempted to fulfill physical desires, it is believed that they are giving in to the "courtship practices…of the world, and such loose morals lead to broken homes and divorce" (Young Companion 7). As Onesimus advised, "If you are together just because of the desire of your flesh, then you have no foundation on which to prepare for Christian marriage, and no strength to resist temptation" (Young Companion 2). For a strong marriage it is believed that the evil represented by premarital physical stimulation must be resisted, and dating practices must be based on the teachings of the Bible.

In contrast to mainstream dating conduct, Amish feel that any physical contact, or even sitting to closely, is improper for a couple before marriage. Amish society relies upon the Bible as the source to answer all questions. To support the reason why physical contact prior to marriage is wrong, they refer to scripture passages such as "But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin when it is finished, bringeth forth death" (James) and "Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11) (qtd. in Young Companion 7). To rephrase, the Amish believe that premarital physical contact results in lust, which leads to sin, and ultimately Hell. As a result of utilizing only one source to answer questions, the Amish are able to provide a uniform answer to questions about dating and avoid the ambiguous advice received by mainstream couples.

In addition, Amish advice remains consistent over time due to endogamy, the rule that Amish must marry within the culture. This practice results in consistent rules and guidance passes from generation to generation. This is also in sharp contrast with the common mainstream belief that one should be free to choose any marriage partner, regardless of religious convictions. The resulting mixture of religious and other beliefs in American culture results in drastic changes from generation to generation.

As a result of differing advice and beliefs, Amish and American dates are different in practice. It is commonly accepted that mainstream couple see each other for long periods of time almost daily. A common goal is to know everything about each other. It can be generally observed that as the amount of time spent together increases, the internal barriers to lustful actions weaken. Amish recognize this strong correlation between time and lustful action as well, and, therefore, perceive "danger in seeing each other too frequently and becoming too familiar with each other, for then the reserve that is so needful between unmarried persons may gradually be broken down" (Young Companion 4). Rather than accepting that a couple will be in constant company, recommendations are made to "see each other only once an week, or once in two weeks, and then only for a few hours at a time," stay in well-lit areas, and spend time around others as means of avoiding physical intimacy (Young Companion 3).

In conclusion, we can see that dating practices and advice differ greatly between Amish and mainstream American culture. Although both have somewhat similar questions about proper dating conduct, each society responds to these questions quite differently. American youth are bombarded with inconsistent ideas. In contrast, the Amish provide consistent guidance based on religious scripture and their belief in the flawed nature of humans. As a result, relationships in mainstream culture take a wide variety of courses based on widely varying beliefs, while those in Amish communities tend to closely follow the one recommended path.